As usual, most of the original song titles refer to small towns in Pennsylvania (not sure if there's a town there called 'Cute'), the cover art is a detailed parody of a well-known and widely respected jazz recording (in this case Roy Haynes' “Out of The Afternoon”), and contains faux-intellectual liner notes (written by bassist / leader Moppa Elliott) that lampoon the sort of 'well-known-critic' type liner notes (or perhaps CD reviews like the one you're reading) that one sees on all manner of jazz recordings from the mid 20th Century. The music, as always, is outstanding. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans are phenomenal musical talents who are performing at a peak level. As soloists, both of these fellows have amazing chops, boundless ideas, and both demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge and a thorough understanding of jazz history. The band's bassist and chief composer, Moppa Elliott, is cut from the same cloth but plays a more supportive role here, though he gets a respectable amount of solo space. Drummer Kevin Shea is the wild card. He is that rare drummer who – though he travels primarily in experimental rock circles (he co-leads the band 'Talibam!') - can play convincing jazz drums in a swinging and thoroughly authentic manner. Here, he actively disrupts and diverts the rhythmic flow, steering Evans and Irabagon into uncharted waters. He also uses primitive and circuit-bent electronics to create a surreal percussive world that parallels his activities on the standard drum kit. Shea occupies quite a bit of the musical foreground on “Forty Fort” - more often than not, the horn solos come off as duets with the mercurial and wildly inventive drummer. Shea's bizarre sensibilities come hilariously to the fore on the CD-closing version of Neal Hefti's 'Cute.'
The tunes here are ultra-catchy, hook-laden, and unabashedly allied with the classic post-bop, soul jazz, and modal jazz sounds of the late 50s through mid-60s. Elliott's compositions are pretty remarkable not only by virtue of their sheer, unvarnished melodicism, but also for their malleability - the band really does something unique and unexpected with each one of them. In practice, the tunes here never really adhere to the formulaic head-solos-head format, though they seem to have been conceived that way. I suspect that the structure gets thrown out the window once the band starts working with them.
On 'Pen Argyl,' Shea quite literally kicks off the CD with a bombastic and thoroughly subversive solo over Elliott's insistent boogaloo-type bass line. The tune itself is a snapshot of manic glee, as Irabagon erupts into the first of many mind-boggling improvisations over Shea's manic drumming. Evans joins in and the rhythm shifts and simmers down as Shea rummages through his bag of electronic toys and Elliot sneaks in some filigreed variations on the bass before the band returns to the head. 'Rough and Ready' sounds like a lost Cannonball Adderley tune, and sports two equally catchy bridges that lead to equally acrobatic and inspired solos by Evans and Irabagon, though the bulk of the improv on this tune is a collective effort. By contrast, 'Blue Ball' (which has the feel of something that Jackie McLean would have done circa 'Let Freedom Ring') is delicate, almost florid though it leads to an incendiary unaccompanied alto sax solo. The title track is a sweet, swinging canon with a bluesy out-of-tempo bridge that takes the tune off into the first of many completely different, but obviously related, directions. In fact, each tune on “Forty Fort” seems to have musical trapdoors that lead the listener – unsuspecting or otherwise – into new and fresh territories. Many have said that jazz is 'the sound of surprise,' and MOPTDK are certainly taking this statement to heart.